Zinke leaves unfinished business at the Interior Department — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Carl Segerstrom):

On the second day of 2019, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted out his resignation letter to President Donald Trump. After less than two years in office, he claimed to have “restored public lands ‘for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,’ improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs.”

That appears to be Zinke’s view of the legacy his abbreviated tenure will leave on the Interior Department’s more than 500 million acres of land and roughly 70,000 employees. Critics might interpret his garbled syntax as a confession: that he turned over public land to industry — pushing oil and gas leases in sensitive habitat, rescinding environmental protections and shrinking national monuments. But what, really, did Zinke accomplish?

Ryan Zinke wore many hats as Interior Department Secretary, effective bureaucrat wasn’t one of them. Credit: Department of the Interior via The High Country News

The answer: Probably not much. The methane Zinke allowed gas drillers to flare can’t be unburnt, the oil and gas leases he sold are probably good for at least 10 years, and the institutional knowledge of departed agency workers will be difficult to restore. Still, the flippant way Zinke executed his many rollbacks and policy changes leaves them vulnerable to be overturned, either by the next administration, Congress or the courts.

“The cumulative landscape impact is significant,” said Brett Hartl, the government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “(But) I am optimistic that almost everything they’ve done can be undone. We can win in court because most of the things they are doing violate the laws they are addressing.”

Zinke — a Navy veteran, former oil pipeline functionary and Montana congressman — was not coy about his determination to achieve something he called “energy dominance.” Nor was he shy about favoring industry over all other public-lands users. Following the lead and executive orders of President Donald Trump, Zinke cut environmental regulations, shrank Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and censored climate science while pushing out agency scientists and staff. By reducing fracking safeguards, slashing methane waste regulations and cutting protections for migratory birds, Zinke’s Interior Department has made it easier to develop oil and gas on public lands.

The Interior Department’s deregulatory agenda.

Yet only a handful of rules — which create policies that require a lengthy and public process to undo — have been finalized in the last two years. Many of the actions taken by the administration have been done through secretarial orders, internal memos and staffing decisions, many of which can be reversed on day one of a new administration.

For example, policies that have lead to the censoring of climate science could be immediately discarded. New leadership at Interior could also terminate every politically appointed agency head and staffer. For instance, Zinke’s childhood friend Steve Howke, a former credit union executive with no Interior Department experience, would no longer be in charge of reviewing the department’s grant applications.

From a staffing standpoint, Zinke’s legacy will come less from temporary political appointees than from the loss of rank-and-file workers. The departures of career staffers, who left after questionable reassignments, interference in climate research, and policies that incentivized early retirements, will make it harder to rebuild a workforce that is shrinking despite increased visitation on public lands.

The legal actions of the Trump administration’s Interior Department are also vulnerable in federal courts. “We see a pattern of attempts to suspend compliance with agency rules” that doesn’t adhere to the Administrative Procedures Act, said Hana Vizcarra, the staff attorney for Harvard Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.

As Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., takes the lead oversight role as the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Trump’s opponents could gain more leverage. “Information from oversight in the house could give ammunition to litigants or spur interest in further lawsuits,” Vizcarra said. If, for example, the committee unveiled new information that showed rules were made at the request of regulated industries, “it could impact what a court considers reasonable or arbitrary,” and undermine the agency’s ability to defend its actions, she said.

In the end, Zinke will probably be remembered more for his hat collection, bluster, multiple scandals and ethics investigations and vacations taken on the taxpayer dime than for any policies he implemented, good or bad. One thing is certain, though: The drive for “energy dominance” at the expense of the environment will endure for as long as Trump remains president, particularly under the leadership of now acting-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is generally seen to be more competent than Zinke.

“In some sense, Ryan Zinke really was Trump’s mini-me in terms of flailing around and fumbling very loudly, but really not having a clear policy direction other than deregulation and handing over federal authority to manage public lands,” said Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds, a conservation group that opposes grazing and energy development on public land. “Now, we could be turning over the helm to cold-blooded professionals who are industry lobbyists that really know how to get things done.”

Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at carls@hcn.org.

#GreenhouseGas Emissions Accelerate Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018 — The New York Times #ActOnClimate

Rush hour on Interstate 25 near Alameda. Screen shot The Denver Post March 9, 2017.

From The New York Times (Kendra Pierre-Louis):

Scientists described the quickening rate of carbon dioxide emissions in stark terms, comparing it to a “speeding freight train” and laying part of the blame on an unexpected surge in the appetite for oil as people around the world not only buy more cars but also drive them farther than in the past — more than offsetting any gains from the spread of electric vehicles.

“We’ve seen oil use go up five years in a row,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford and an author of one of two studies published Wednesday. “That’s really surprising.”

Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the new research, which was published by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions and one of the few organizations to comprehensively examine global emissions numbers. Emissions rose 1.6 percent last year, the researchers said, ending a three-year plateau.

Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the new research, which was published by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions and one of the few organizations to comprehensively examine global emissions numbers. Emissions rose 1.6 percent last year, the researchers said, ending a three-year plateau.

A judge just dealt a potentially fatal blow to #KeystoneXL — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

After a slew of climate-friendly ballot initiatives went down in flames on Election Day in Arizona, Colorado and Washington, greens needed something to cheer them up. Days later the good news came in the form of a possibly deal-killing setback to a controversial oil pipeline: A federal judge sent the Keystone XL proposal back to the drawing board because it failed to comply with federal environmental regulations.

First proposed in 2008, the 1,200-mile pipeline would carry as much as 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day from Alberta oil sands to Steele City, Nebraska, en route to Gulf Coast refineries. In 2015, President Barack Obama denied a permit for the pipeline, citing climate concerns; but in 2017, President Donald Trump reversed the denial, allowing the project to move forward.

The Indigenous Environment Network then sued the Trump administration, claiming that it erred by relying on an outdated analysis of the pipeline’s environmental impacts. On Nov. 8, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on several issues, vacated the 2017 approval decision and ordered the State Department to supplement the Environmental Impact Statement, completed in 2014. That additional analysis must include a “hard look” at the effects of current oil prices, potential increases in greenhouse gas emissions, possible damage to cultural resources and new data on oil spills.

A sign along U.S. Highway 20 in Stuart, Nebraska, in May 2012. Stuart is on the edge of the Sand Hills, a few miles from Newport. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2015/11/15/rural-nebraska-keystone-and-the-paris-climate-talks/#sthash.Hm4HePDb.dpuf

A major sticking point in the 2014 impact statement is its prediction for how the pipeline would contribute to climate change. In short, the analysis concludes that although burning the oil carried by the pipeline would emit about 168 million tons of carbon each year, constructing the pipeline would result in no new greenhouse gas emissions.

The conclusion assumes that even without the pipeline, the same amount of oil would get to market by some other means. That’s because as long as oil prices remain at or above $100 per barrel, oil producers are willing to spend the extra cash to ship their bitumen — the waxy crude that comes from oil sands — via rail. When the analysis was completed, the price of oil was closing in on $150 per barrel.

But oil prices did not stay high. Just months after the impact statement was published, global prices crashed, falling below $40 per barrel and plunging most oil sands mining operations into the red. That radically altered the climate impact calculus of the pipeline. When oil sinks below $75 per barrel or so, it no longer makes economic sense to pay to move it by train, meaning production will fall. The Keystone XL, however, would decrease shipping costs, helping to keep the oil sands viable. That would lead to an increase in production and concurrent rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, independent analyses have found that Keystone XL could also up emissions by displacing other, less carbon-intensive forms of crude, and by adding enough oil to the global market to lower prices, thereby boosting consumption — and emissions. Both scenarios were discounted in the original impact statement.

It was during the price slump that Obama put the kibosh on the pipeline. Today, domestic prices have bounced back up to about $60 per barrel, still far below the level at which the pipeline would result in no net increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

Also missing from the 2014 analysis is a full accounting of potential impacts to cultural resources along the pipeline’s route. The analysis identified hundreds of cultural sites, but also said that over 1,000 acres remained unsurveyed. Apparently the surveys had not been completed when the 2017 approval was made.

And then there are the potential oil spills. The 2014 analysis predicted that the new pipeline would not spill more than once every 10 years. Data from federal pipeline regulators, however, suggest this is a lowball estimate. The Dakota Access Pipeline and its southern counterpart, ETCO, for example, have experienced 11 spills since they went into operation in 2017. Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 published a study finding that spilled bitumen “… starts to turn into a heavy, viscous, sediment-laden residue that cannot easily be recovered using traditional response techniques.”

All of this information must be taken into account and addressed before the project can be permitted, Judge Morris said in his recent ruling. That could take years. The Trump administration has indicated that it will appeal the ruling.

Morris directed his harshest scolding toward the Trump administration for reversing its predecessor’s policy and dismissing the environmental concerns without adequate reasoning. In so doing, he could have been referring to any number of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks. “Even when reversing a policy after an election, an agency may not simply discard prior factual findings without a reasoned explanation,” Morris wrote. “An agency cannot simply disregard contrary or inconvenient factual determinations that it made in the past, any more than it can ignore inconvenient facts when it writes on a blank slate.”

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

Petroteq Energy has begun oil sand production west of Rangely #ActOnClimate

Map of oil shale and tar sands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — via the BLM

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Petroteq Energy, formerly MCW Energy Group, has built a facility at Asphalt Ridge outside Vernal and is using what it says are benign solvents to produce oil from oil sand deposits. The company says its approach uses no water, produces no waste or greenhouse gas and doesn’t require high temperatures.

It is working to ramp up production to the plant’s capacity of 1,000 barrels a day.

The company said this month it received a small-source exemption from the Utah Division of Air Quality for its facility, allowing it to begin sales. It said in a news release that it got the exemption because the plant’s estimated emissions are less than the level for which a permit is needed, “further confirmation that Petroteq’s process is an environmentally conscious method of oil extraction.”

Oil sands are also known as tar sands or bituminous sands, and contain a heavy oil also described as asphalt or bitumen.

Petroteq says its leases have 93 million barrels of estimated oil resource. Eastern Utah is home to the largest oil sands resources in the country, with resource estimates running as high as 32 billion barrels…

Petroteq’s project is at Asphalt Ridge, which the federal Bureau of Land Management has reported has been the target of oil/tar sand exploration and development efforts as early as the 1920s, when Vernal paved its streets from Asphalt Ridge deposits.

Work there included a plant that used hot water to extract oil in the 1930s. Hot water also is used in Canadian tar sands development that also incorporates tailing ponds. “Our ‘Asphalt Ridge’ asset has (from time to time) caught the attention of major oil companies going back 70 years. But nobody has been able to unlock its resources in a financially sound and environmentally friendly manner until the Petroteq team and its proprietary technology came along,” David Sealock, Petroteq’s chief executive officer, said in a recent news release announcing the company’s start of commercial production.

The company says its focus is on development and implementation of proprietary technologies for environmentally safe production of heavy oil from oil sands, oil shale and shallow oil deposits. Northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah are home to world-class deposits of oil shale, rock containing kerogen-like hydrocarbon deposits.

The efforts of companies like Petroteq continue to be criticized by groups including Utah Tar Sands Resistance, which says on its website, “The production of tar sands in Utah is a story of false claims and impossible promises with a long history of failed companies, bankruptcies and name changes.”

A federal judge in Montana on Thursday blocked all further work on the Keystone XL pipeline, says #ClimateChange can’t be ignored #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Trucks hauling tar sands material for processing in Alberta.

From Inside Climate News (Phil McKenna):

A federal judge in Montana on Thursday blocked all further work on the Keystone XL pipeline, saying the Trump administration had failed to justify its decision to reverse a prior decision by the Obama administration and to approve the tar sands oil delivery project.

It was a striking victory for environmental advocates who have spent over a decade fighting the project to carry tar sands oil from Canada to markets in the United States and had turned the KXL line into a litmus test for climate action.

Environmental advocates, landowners along the pipeline’s route and indigenous rights groups hailed the ruling. They called it a major setback—if not a permanent defeat—for the long-contested crude oil pipeline. The Obama administration had determined that the pipeline was not in the national interest, and President Barack Obama had cited its potential climate impact in rejecting it.

Gov. Hickenlooper joins western governors in continued commitment to uphold standards of the Clean Air and Water Acts

Mount Rainier and Seattle Skyline July 22 2017.

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

Gov. John Hickenlooper today joined governors from California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington in signing a letter committing to upholding the standards set forth in the Clean Air and Water Acts, despite changes to federal standards in Washington D.C.

“We will not run from our responsibility to protect and improve clean air and water for future generations,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “We know it will take collaboration just like this to make it happen. Changes at the federal level will not distract from our goals.”

Colorado continues efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as outlined by the state’s Colorado Climate Plan. Last week Colorado submitted comments pushing back on the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken federal auto standards. State agencies continue work on finalizing a low emissions vehicle plan by the end of the year.

In their letter, the governors wrote “Each of our states has a unique administrative and regulatory structure established to protect clean air and clean water, but we share a commitment to science-based standards that protect human health and the environment. As governors, we pledge to be diligent environmental stewards of our natural resources to ensure that current and future generations can enjoy the bounty of clean air, clean water and the highest quality of life.”

View the full letter here.

How air pollution is destroying our health — the World Health Organization @WHO

Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:

As the world gets hotter and more crowded, our engines continue to pump out dirty emissions, and half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies (e.g. stoves, lamps), the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year. The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.

Air pollution is hard to escape, no matter how rich an area you live in. It is all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.

From The Guardian (Damian Carrington and Matthew Taylor):

Simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more, but ‘a smog of complacency pervades the planet’, says Dr Tedros Adhanom

Air pollution is the “new tobacco”, the head of the World Health Organization has warned, saying the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more.

Over 90% of the world’s population suffers toxic air and research is increasingly revealing the profound impacts on the health of people, especially children.

“The world has turned the corner on tobacco. Now it must do the same for the ‘new tobacco’ – the toxic air that billions breathe every day,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general. “No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. It is a silent public health emergency.”